Backpacking options in the park run the gamut from short, one-night trips along a river or to a lake or high point, to multi-day treks up valleys and over multiple passes. The region is also known for the multitude of mountaineering opportunities, also from short climbs to lengthy bushwhacking and climbing epics.
Within the trail corridors, there are almost 140 designated sites. Camping in the trail corridors is allowed only at these camps, which are designed to provide a safe and low-impact camping experience. Most camps are located off the main trail, to provide privacy and a sense of solitude for passing hikers. Each camp has a flat tent pad area, pit or composting toilet, and access to water. Designated camps at lower elevations also have an established fire ring.
Cross-country camping is allowed as well, but must be at least one-half mile from any trail and one mile away from designated camps. Camping is not allowed in alpine meadows or on fragile vegetation, or near water sources. Off-trail hiking can be very challenging in this steep and thickly vegetated terrain. In many areas, hiking one-half mile away from a trail may literally put you on the side of a steep slope, or crossing a swift creek. Most off-trail travel is undertaken by mountaineers with climbing objectives beyond the forested lower slopes. However, adventurous and experienced backpackers will find a wild park with plenty of opportunities to bushwhack, explore your physical boundaries, find solitude, and discover some hidden gems.
The Pacific Crest Trail, a designated National Scenic Trail extending from the California/Mexico border to the Washington/Canada border, passes through North Cascades National Park and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area coinciding with the Bridge Creek and other trails.
The 60-mile portion of the Pacific Northwest Trail which passes through North Cascades National Park and Ross Lake National Recreation Area is a designated National Recreation Trail. The Pacific Northwest Trail stretches from Glacier National Park in Montana to Cape Alava on the Pacific Ocean in Olympic National Park. The portion in the North Cascades National Park Service Complex skirts Ross Lake, goes up the Big Beaver Trail into the Little Beaver drainage and continues west over Whatcom and Hannegan Passes.
For more information about this trail contact the Pacific Northwest Trail Association.
This moderate, beautiful forested loop combines the best of two old growth valleys: Big Beaver and Little Beaver. Add a day for a side trip to scenic Whatcom Pass, with views of Challenger glacier and peak. This “loop” requires a water taxi either to or from Little Beaver to complete the final leg—there is no connecting trail along Ross Lake that joins Little Beaver landing to another trail. This lower elevation trail is usually snowfree by mid- to late-June.
This moderately strenuous loop combines climbs over both McAlester and Rainbow Passes, and two subalpine lakes by the same name, with steep descents into valleys in between. The loop combines the Bridge Creek (Pacific Crest Trail), McAlester Lake, Rainbow Creek and Rainbow Lake trails. Add a day to explore some cross-country (off-trail) areas, especially around McAlester Pass, or to fish. An ice axe may be required to navigate the steep snows that linger on the north side of Bowan Pass well into July.
This strenuous loop trip combines the best of North Cascades terrain: a rare ridge walk with expansive mountain views, and one of the finest old growth forested hikes in the park, along a salmon river. Follow the US Forest Service Hannegan Pass Trail #674 to Boundary Camp, then either head up to Copper Ridge or down along the Chilliwack River, depending on your permitted itinerary. You will work hard for your views, ascending steeply to the ridge no matter which direction you hike the loop, so plan reasonable mileages. This is an immensely popular area and the sites along Copper Ridge fill quickly—come prepared to be flexible with your first-choice itinerary. An ice axe is required to navigate the steep snows of Copper Ridge until July.
Most of this strenuous loop trip is located in the adjacent Pasayten Wilderness, in the Okanogan National Forest, but the loop completes along the shores of Ross Lake, on the East Bank Trail. Much of this trail is high ridge walking above treeline, as you circumnavigate Jack Mountain. This loop is known for its wonderful wildflower displays and views of the Pasayten, and many other mountains. Begin at the East Bank trailhead, and follow USFS Ruby Creek Trail #736 east, or start at Canyon Creek trailhead. Follow USFS Jackita Ridge Trail #738, to USFS Devil's Ridge Trail #752, and finally return on the East Bank Trail. This high elevation trail often holds the snow until well into the summer months--check USFS trail conditions before heading out.